DUBAI—The Chalhoub Group opens the doors to The Greenhouse on Tuesday, a dedicated workspace and accelerator for retail technology start-ups. The program gives companies a three-month, equity-free acceleration program that will allow them to test their products on the more than 300 brands within the group’s portfolio.
While taking WWD through an exclusive preview of the greenery- and light-filled space located in the Dubai Design District, Patrick Chalhoub, co-chief executive officer of the group, which operates more than 600 stores in 14 countries, said The Greenhouse will cultivate a more entrepreneurial environment in the company.
With a growing workforce of over 12,000 employees, Chalhoub said that it is often a challenge to bring new technology solutions into the company.
“We are a large organization and it’s not always easy for retailers like us to find solutions quickly to solve some of our problems. With the accelerator we are able to give start-ups the opportunity to experiment to find solutions on a smaller scale, working with one brand, and if they work, we will adopt it in a bigger way,” said Chalhoub.
He added that this approach is a change in the culture of the company. “Until now, we have been very corporate mindset which is to find the best possible solution which answers absolutely everything, covering all elements. Now we are saying, perhaps you are looking for something simpler which answers to your specific challenges for individual brands. We are at the beginning of the journey. First, there is some resistance because you are used to doing business in a certain way. But we have to encourage our teams to be bold.”
The first cohort of start-ups under The Greenhouse arrived in Dubai at the end of September. The five selected companies — StoreDNA, SizeMe, Phygitalmind, EuroPass and Brandquad — come from all over the world, from France and Finland to Turkey, and bring technology solutions that address specific challenges for the company which had been identified in advance.
Dina Sidani, head of Greenhouse, said the start-ups have hit the ground running, applying their technology to the partner brands at Chalhoub. “Our value add for them is the market access we can provide and the validation and commercialization of their technology.” She added that the brands in the Chalhoub Group portfolio that have chosen to work with the accelerator companies, have been very open to applying new solutions. “There is so much information you can get using in store technology, whereas before you would rely on intuition and anecdotal information. Our brands have already responded very enthusiastically to bringing these onto the shop floor,” said Sidani.
The Greenhouse is part of a larger movement within the company. In January, Chalhoub created an internally focused transformation team called SHIFT, which is working to implement digital and cultural changes across the company. This will enable the transition from being a traditional brick-and-mortar retailer and distributor, to a hybrid model, which Chalhoub describes as “future-proof.”
The Greenhouse, as well as an in-house incubator aimed at employees called Ibtikar are central to that. Ibtikar gives employees a chance to develop a business idea by giving them funding and dedicated time away from their responsibilities, training and mentorship. The idea is by creating “intra-preneurs” within the company, employees are encouraged to adopt more agile ways of working. “We are really focused on what are the next wave of business models that are going to come into retail. We want to identify them and build them in-house,” said Sidani.
Rania Masri, chief transformation officer at Chalhoub Group, described it as a shift in corporate culture which encourages new ways of working and empowering employees to innovate.
“If you look at how entrepreneurs work, they are agile, respond quickly. We need to move in that direction to stay ahead of the game. Lessons like, starting small, failing fast or scaling fast, are vital. There is so much to learn from the start-up environment.”
The exposure and interaction with start-ups via The Greenhouse, she says will help infuse an entrepreneurial culture throughout the company and hopefully accelerate the group’s digital and cultural transformation.
The Greenhouse workspace, with its lofted seating nooks, meeting rooms featuring swings as chairs and a casual tiered seating area, has been designed to host accelerator companies, but also a robust events program that will include founder stories series, workshops, hackathons and training sessions for Chalhoub team members and partners across the community in Dubai.
“We want to be part of the overall culture in Dubai that is attracting start-ups, to position Dubai as a real base for innovation,” said Chalhoub.